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Todd Barry knows the quandary of today’s US job market better than most. “It’s great that the economy is good, but if you don’t have the staff to operate you’re in trouble,” says the owner of Moby Dick’s Restaurant on Cape Cod. Workers from other countries make up a sizable portion of his staff each year. But Republicans in Congress pared back the so-called H-2B program of temporary visas in 2016, leaving many seasonal businesses around the United States wondering if they'll be able to find enough workers. Skeptics of the program say the answer is, “hire American.” David North, an advocate for less immigration, calls the program a form of indentured labor since the guest workers are tied to their employer. Supporters say labor inspectors closely monitor the program and that the visas go where workers are truly scarce. Congress allows 66,000 H-2B visas each year, split between winter and summer seasons. Now, from Louisiana to Maryland, many businesses are still waiting to find out if extra visas will be approved – and pondering how to cope if they aren’t.
Inside the white-shingled beachfront building, past the doubled-stacked lobster tanks out front, Tim McNulty is back in the kitchen with his lunchtime crew. It’s an overcast midweek day, and no tour buses are in town, but there’s a steady flow of diners into the family-owned restaurant.
Mr. McNulty is part of that family. He started out in the kitchen, after his mother bought the Lobster Pot in 1979, and he worked his way up to executive chef. For the past two decades, he’s come to rely on guest workers who arrive in April and stay into October, when the shutters come down for the season and the neon lobster sign outside goes dark.
This year he caught a break: His regular crew of Jamaican chefs and dishwashers and janitors all got their seasonal work visas. Other business owners, from hoteliers and caterers to landscapers and swimming-pool cleaners, weren’t so fortunate.
Along with crabbers in Maryland and shrimpers in Louisiana, many here on Cape Cod came up short in what has become an annual scramble for H-2B visas, a non-immigrant category of visas that nonetheless has become a lightning rod in the national immigration debate.
Congress sets an annual cap of 66,000 H-2B visas, divided equally into winter and summer seasons. That the decades-old program is now hugely oversubscribed – 81,600 applications were filed on Jan. 1 for summer jobs – is another sign of a strong economy with low unemployment. And to employers and their advocates, the answer is simple: Issue more visas and fill the jobs with foreigners.
“This is a crisis. Seasonal businesses are shutting down or turning away business,” says Laurie Flanagan, co-chair of a coalition of business groups that rely on H-2B workers.
To critics of H-2Bs and other work-visa programs, the signal is different. Employers are exploiting cheap labor from abroad to fill jobs that Americans could do, provided the pay was improved. “The solution is to raise the wages. It wouldn’t take much, maybe a dollar or two more an hour, and bingo, you’d have everyone you wanted,” says David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies that advocates for lower immigration to the US.
While President Trump has catalyzed anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican Party and cajoled US companies to “hire American,” he takes a more benign view of guest workers. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s resorts in New York and Florida have obtained H2-B visas to hire foreign servers, cooks, and housekeepers.
Last month the president told a rally in Macomb County, Mich. that “our unemployment picture is so good and so strong that we’ve got to let people come in, they’re going to be guest workers.” Trump added, “we’re gonna have the H-2Bs come in ... but then they have to go out.”
And this is exactly what happens, says Don Berig, who has owned the Lobster’s Claw in Orleans for 49 years. “They come and they go home. They don’t break the law,” he says of his 15 guest workers from Jamaica and Slovakia.
Last year Berig and his wife, who are both in their seventies, were themselves working in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, because their foreign workers were still waiting in April for their visas.
Employers on Cape Cod say it’s not as simple as paying higher wages to “hire American,” given a small year-round population and expensive housing that deters job seekers from afar. (For the guest workers, employers are often able to help find cheap but very modest housing.) Under the H-2B program, employers must first advertise jobs in newspapers and online before the visas are issued. But they say this rarely turns up candidates willing to work as cooks or housekeepers for $15 an hour, as guest workers do.
“There’s not enough people locally to meet the demand,” says Chris Kolwicz, a manager at the Wychmere Beach Club in Harwich, which employs 135 seasonal staff. This year he applied for 18 H-2B visas – and received none. “It’s frustrating,” he says.
To fill slots, Mr. Kolwicz has gone to job fairs and for some positions bumped starting wages, but is still short staffed. And applicants don’t always show up for job interviews, he gripes. Like many here, he hires college students to work in bars and restaurants, but most are gone by mid-August, and the season runs into September.
“Businesses are hurting. It’s great that the economy is good, but if you don’t have the staff to operate you’re in trouble,” says Todd Barry who owns Moby Dick’s Restaurant in Wellfleet. In past years, around a quarter of his workers came on H-2B visas, but this year he didn’t enter for the program, deterred by the expense and hassle. He hires European students who come for the summer on J-1 visas and, for the first time, went to Puerto Rico in January to recruit there.
“I want to hire Americans, but they’re not available for the timeframe that we need them. And it’s not a matter of paying more. We pay good wages,” Mr. Barry says.
Under the spending bill Congress passed in March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the authority to issue additional H-2B visas. Last year an extra 15,000 visas were released, but not until July, too late for many resort owners. And while Trump has praised guest workers, the program is seen as toxic to immigration hawks in his administration.
A separate guest-worker program for agricultural workers is also in the spotlight. Farmers in California and other states have complained that repeated delays in issuing H-2A visas are leading to fruits and vegetables going unpicked. The crackdown on illegal immigration is also affecting the sector; nearly half of farm workers in the United States are unauthorized, according to official surveys.
Until 2016, Congress exempted H2-B holders who had worked in any of the previous three years from the annual cap, effectively expanding the pool of workers. Among those who opposed this exemption were then-Senator Jeff Sessions (now Trump’s attorney general), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left. The exemption ended four months before Trump took office on Sept. 30, 2016.
Mr. North, who served in the Labor Department under President Lyndon Johnson, describes himself as a “liberal restrictionist” on immigration policy and says employers have been “spoiled” by foreign labor. “My opposition to foreign worker programs relates to numbers not ethnicity,” he says.
He points to incidents of abuse and trafficking of H-2B visa holders whom he calls a form of indentured labor since they are tied to their employer. Ms. Flanagan says labor inspectors closely monitor the program and points out that workers are given cards detailing their legal rights while in the US.
Back at the Lobster Pot, more than a third of McNulty’s 100-strong workforce are H-2B visa holders. They are familiar faces, coming back season after season to cook and clean and serve. For the past two years McNulty opened the restaurant a month late in May because their visas didn’t come on time. And the uncertainty over who would get visas this year – DHS switched to a lottery system because of the huge demand – forced him to draw up a Plan B for this year.
That plan was to only serve dinner, not lunch, until he could find and train new workers. “Right now, we wouldn’t be open, if we didn’t get our [foreign] staff,” he says.
McNulty estimates that opening a month late in 2016 and 2017 meant around $900,000 in lost revenue. That revenue also supports his local suppliers and state tax collections, and puts money into the hands of workers who spend it. “Everyone loses,” he says.